Monday, October 19, 2009

Carolyn Arends: Love Was Here First

Carolyn Arends: Love Was Here First  Review 10/18/09
(Release: 10/20/09)

Synopsis: LWHF is an “Ameri-pop” extravaganza, featuring dallies with black gospel, blue grass, honky-tonk, even Broadway -- by Christian lyricist, singer, musician, film critic, Canadian and mom -- Carolyn Amends. This is Carolyn’s 10th album, and like her others, communicates spiritual insights with catchy lyrics, bent on feeding the heart and mind. The lyrics aim at Christian audience, but the quality dictates a larger hearing.

First, I’d clear up a misconception – My own. When I first saw the cover graphics for LWHF, then heard (Didn’t I?) that this album would have a slightly urban cast… I was expecting something gritty, perhaps even a poetically dark. (Might Carolyn try a Mark Heard Impression?) But while there may be some city sensibilities here -- namely the city of New Orleans, or wherever else they play Cajun colored Dixie-bayou-trombone-accordion bluegrass; this album brims with sunrise and grits. To be honest, I was having a hard time envisioning Carolyn sounding morose, though she does do “pensive” very well.

Interesting story, the title on the CD cover is not Photo-shopped onto the background building. Rather, she had her artists roller paint it direct on the wall, even as they checked to make sure there really was nothing crass in the existing graffiti.

As is, I own four of Carolyn’s nine, now ten music offerings. As an old Fuddy Duddy, who still buys CDs (and refuses to let people copy them) I had started to lose ground with some of my favorite music people over the last years; Given the shift to a download product, not everybody shows up in the record store they way they once did. But now… Presto, I find I am reuniting with my faves through Facebook.

So I was most intrigued when Carolyn, starting this summer gave us routine updates on her new music project, with details as she passed each marker in writing, song selection, recording process, and the final photo session. I wondered, would this be like her earliest folk-leaning records -- or more like her dallies with strobe-lights and mosh pits? Not really, but Carolyn does have at least one rock-out record. But I must confess, this review comes out of a vacuum. I haven’t followed Carolyn for several years, but after reading some reviews of earlier but recent albums, it appears Carolyn has been moving in a “Pop-Americanna” direction over the course of several albums.

So what is Love Was Here First?

It’s an album full of fledged quality, from the vocals to the instrumentation and production to the cover and inside graphics to the heart behind it all. Carolyn has worked hard to honor both God and her neighbor by giving us a product that is inventive, artistically challenging, and deeply encouraging.

For the uninitiated, Carolyn has what might be called a pretty voice, leaning cute. Or like a happy mom. But don’t misunderstand, I don’t mean saccharine, but rather kind of wholesome and funny and loaded with character. (Carolyn, I hope this doesn’t sound wrong, but I have always thought that you have the voice that should belong to a third-grade teacher; a little tough, a little sweet, with lots of play.) But teacher aside, Carolyn uses her voice in this album in some ways that are new to me. Think “lovely” as opposed to cute. Or bold as opposed to careful -- with moments of rhapsody. I’d almost bet she has been listening to indie pop singer Regina Spektor. (but that’s just a guess.)

Beyond that, the sonic textures and variety on LWHF push farther than anything I have heard in an Arend’s release. One or two tracks were a little over produced for my ear, but by-and-large, the production flat sizzles. The opening track begins with a gut-pleasing staccato “train track” guitar, followed later by a brass quartet and fiddle. The second track quiets down with Carolyn singing a pensive and soulful rendition of “Standing in the Need of Prayer.” She even gets to sing it with the Sojourners, an old- school black gospel quartet. Wow! Over the course of the next nine songs, Arends romps through multiple styles and moods, from gypsy to swing and Dixiegrass. Trumpets, fiddles, mandolins, yukes, and uilleann pipes fan an insturmental parade. (I think that was a uilleann pipe?) And did I hear a song fit for a Broadway musical? YES!  I wouldn’t be surprised if producer Ray Salmond listens to Bruce Cockburn, Tracy Chapman, or Sufjan Stevens.

As a lyricist, Arends works hard to craft lyrics that are honed and colorful, but ultimately understandable. She prefers simple, catchy lines, in keeping with “county song craft.” Even so, her writing is concrete and smart. Both her word choice and themes suggest that she is well engaged with the world of culture and ideas, and often turns to God to guide her through strange places and uncertainty. I wouldn’t be surprised if she keeps a spiritual journal, or works out some of her questions with verse.

I could pretty much quote several songs, but here are a some fragments I really liked.

You made the cosmos out of chaos, you made Adam out of dust, you made wine out of water , You’ll make something out of us…You made light shine in our darkness, you made life conquer death, you make children out of sinners, You’ll make something out of us.

Or, while questioning the finality of the grave…

‘Cause why beauty, why poetry, Why no! no! no! to every tragedy; Why laughter, why lullabies, and why this asking why?…A sculpture of a canvas can speak a private language, telling secrets hidden in the heart about a world of spirit -- I swear sometimes I hear it, Playing like a piper’ in the dark. It’s in love songs, in symphonies, in funeral marches and in liturgies. It’s in whispers, in rally cries, in dreams that won’t say die…

You have a body, but you are a soul, You see a fraction, it’s not the whole, I cannot prove it, but still I know, You have a body… you are a soul.

Then there is that title track. With a simple phrase “Love Was Here First’ Arends fuels a really big idea. There, in the beginning, before night-time or apples, or the unfolding of a world gone wrong -- God (who is Love) was with himself, in perfect union and bliss. And He still holds the cosmos, waiting the complete the story.

New sounds and vocal treatments aside, the thing Carolyn does best is quietly minister to her audience. She appears to have a gift for encouragement, and writes songs that should stick in your head. We might know that nothing can separate from the love of Christ, but having that dance in your head through song brings double joy. In the end, Carolyn has succeeded at giving us a record that really does feed our mind and spirit, even as it reaches for high standards of expression. And this is odd…

(Bunny trail) I am a photographer. I listen to a lot of music; I look at a lot of images. And I have seen something in the photo realm and with other art forms related to “sophistication.” Namely, as works move away from the amateur world of sunsets and roses, into the challenging world of “fine art” there is often a corresponding motion toward “darkness.” That is, we very often see that as works grow in art-verve, they also become bitter, sardonic, elusive, unsettling, uncertain, vicious, bizarre, morbid etc. (I am just trying to think of “dark” words, but you get the picture.) We esteem a fashion picture more sophisticated if it shows a sullen gaunt woman who has never had kids who looks like she is about to have a crack breakdown.

But Carolyn proves that your really can make music that reaches for high standards artistically, yet which is also comprehensible, original, and nurturing at the deepest level.

I highly recommend this record.
To order, check out her store at Feed the Lake


Final Final, Bunny. I have read two reviews of kid-films as critiqued by Carolyn in Christianity Today. (Up, and Where the Wild Things Are.) Given her status as mom, her “teacher’s voice”, and other child like attributes, I recommend that her next creative venture be a full blown soundtrack for a kid film. Really.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Jars of Clay: Redemptions Songs - 2005

(this is another review that, four years late, may not make a lot of sense, but I’m on a theme.)

Jars of Clay: Redemptions Songs - 2005
Modern music renditions of songs with “old words.”

Synopsis:  Thirteen covers of traditional and sometimes obscure hymns (with lyrics spanning several centuries), blending elements of folk, modern-rock, black gospel and “Jars-experimental-fusion”

(For the unacquainted, Jars of Clay is an acousta-rock phenomena, launched somewhere in the Christian world of the 1990’s, but moving (as of 2009) in an art-rock direction and toward broader “mainstream” audience. Early albums mixed elements of orchestral music, even tribal music into rhythmic folk. Later albums showcase a motion to Beatle-esque harmonies and harder edged modern rock, with attending lyrical ambiguity. As if to answer questions about who they are (or where they draw their vision) Redemption Songs is a clear statement by the Jars (2005) in which they clearly confess both their need of, and love for their Redeemer.


Of my couple dozen hymn-based CD’s this is one I spin less. Not for any lack of quality or spiritual vitality, but because the liberties taken with the hymns and the general styling make this more of a “listen to” than a “sing-with” CD… That, and the fact that several poundy-shrill “covers” kind of grate on my ears. Songs of Redemption isn’t really a rock album – I would call it heavy edged folk with a touch of the blues (reflective of Jars earlier albums) however, if you don’t have an ear for at least some rock, you probably won’t find home here. I personally found song three (God Will Lift up Your Head) too much of something. I might do better with the rock-dissonance in another album context, but find that I go to hymns for certain majesty and repose.)

That said, the delivery and tone of Redemptions songs goes a long way to driving home a message that might be lost to yesteryears piano. The stuff of sin and salvation (and nailing God to a tree) can be a bloody grating affair. And certainly the stuff of sorrow. “Redemption songs” isn’t bleak – indeed, it holds a great body of joy – however, a certain “heaviness of soul” infuses the album -- not unlike black gospel, where radiance flows from certain pain.

The “heaviness” is aided by lead vocalist Dan Haseltine’s multi-hued voice. He sounds at times like a pack-a-day tenor. How is it possible to have a voice that is at once high and melodic, muscled but thin, clear but rough, and tinged with a kind of frail desperation? I sense healing irony when I hear the voice of “nervy” little white man singing spirituals backed up by the very big black baritone voices of the Blind Boys of Alabama. It is as if two peoples, once estranged have found both common home and culture.

As is, Redemption Songs re-presents the songs of several centuries, beginning of all things with the Psalter, a 17th (?) Century adaptation of the book of Psalms, used by old Scottish Presbyterians, the Puritans, the Pilgrims, and even a few --very few-- contemporary assemblies. Later selections pick up with Charles Wesley and John Newton (author of Amazing Grace), both from the “First Great Awakening.” (Think of poetry-doctrine penned before the American Revolution.) Several other songs follow more directly from the Second Great Awakening (think of the fountain-of-blood revival tunes penned after the American Civil war and before World War One. Add to the mix several African American spirituals penned who knows when, and the closing offering – They will know we are Christians by our Love, penned (I think) somewhere in the 1960’s (?)


As a lover of hymns, I was surprised by how many of these songs I didn’t know. Jars of Clay went out of their way to choose a truly eclectic collection with songs off the beaten path. They chose songs with strong word craft, spanning source denominations and demographics. Even so, there is common denominator in the selection. These are songs for sinners, and the venue, whether new or old … is the rescue mission.

Beyond that, the tunes themselves represent a collage of old, semi old (or seeming new) and brand spanking new tunes. I am not sure of the exact count, but the greater number of the hymns employ “some part” or the original melody, but often reworked, so that we have some sense of antiquity and some sense of originality, twined. A few tunes emerge from the last decade. My favorite new tune – a surprising Beatle-esque adaptation of “It is Well With My Soul.”

Jars themselves do the best job of telling what they want to do with these songs (From a back cover excerpt) : I suppose if you dedicated your life entirely to the building of bridges your eye would be attune to notice things life rivers and canyons….You have in your hands a collection of very old words set to almost completely modern music. The music comes from a place of TRUE REVERENCE and appreciation for the RICHNESS OF OUR PAST and an attempt to leap across YEARS and articulate that the past in a language that could be embraced by 21st century of people of faith…..We hope you are challenged as we are by the unbridled praises that sprung out of the lives that were so deeply bruised with sorrow and struggle. We hope that you are blessed by them as well. Lastly, we hope your find FRESH orientation as your immersed in the rich grace the soaks these songs and that your HEART is ASTONISHED as they boldly and eloquently make that which has become old to us…NEW AGAIN.

I would heartily recommend this album to anyone who wishes to reap the creative and articulate passion of yester-years saints – but with one caveat. I would not give the album to my mom. By contrast to Jar’s other offerings, Redemptions Songs is toned down. It has yukes, flutes and cello. But it still has enough modern-rock sensibilities, that folks who don’t listen to some rock probably won’t like this record.

I do like this record, immensely, as much for the selection as the sound. Listening to Redemption Songs, I feel a deep connection with those who have called Zion their home across the centuries. Bravo Jars, for serving the saints with such skill and passion.

#Save the Hymns

Friday, October 9, 2009

Save the Hymns - Intro

In as much as I've been doing it in my head for years, I've recently decided download and start writing "visible" reviews about the music I love (or love less).  While I really should be reviewing new stuff, my budget is small, so I am pretty much starting with stuff I already own.  And what what a better place to start, than with contemporary recordings of of a body of music that has blessed folks, sometimes for centuries.

As a child turning teen in the 1970’s (b 1960) I was delighted when new forms of worship fuel by the Jesus Movement showed up at our church. On Wednesday nights my folks hosted a "flock group" in our home, consisting of our family and a dozen or so college kids, replete with big beards, maxi skirts, and longer hair for both boys and girls.

As is, my dad played strings (guitar, banjo, mandolin, and yuke) while others joined in with guitar and tambourine. (My Mom is a hand raising, toe-dancing tambourine shaker to this day, having “introduced” the instrument to several more reserved Baptist assemblies.) Back then, we sang a blend of hymns, simple choruses, and even spiritually inspired pop songs like “Put your hand in the hand of the man who stilled the waters.”

At the time, I didn't realize that we were part of a major cultural shift that would redefine worship in many of our churches. Now some forty years later, keyboards, guitars, and praise bands have replaced many a piano and organ. Overhead projection has taken the place of hymn books, and choruses are the mainstay of many a Sunday morning.

All in all, I am grateful for some of the changes that have come about with the new approaches: Many of our former testimonies ABOUT God, have been eclipsed by words of sung directly TO God, like a love song from the heart.

As for style itself, I once heard a pastor say: “Hymns can be living or dead...Modern worship can be fresh or stale. Either form can be done well... or very poorly.”

It is not much of an exaggeration to say, that in the last decade many hundreds (?) of artists have recorded hymn based albums (or albums with vital hymn content), and that if you were to listen to even a dozen offerings, you would hear more hymns over your speakers than you might in many churches over a year--- or even a decade. In fact, so many churches have tilted toward modern chorus and “praise” music, that hymns are often regarded as a part of antiquity, gone the way of the piano and organ.

(In kind of strange way, there seems to be two very different groups who have resisted this overall shift-- very conservative churches, characterized by cultural separation and a resistance to change – and liberal --often liturgical churches who resist change at a different level. (On a personal level, I most like liturgical worship when it is practiced with the fervor of conservative zealots.)

I would like to tell you that I go to a church practices liturgical zealotry…or at least works to blend rich amounts of yesteryear, with today’s “new wine” offerings. But I can’t. Now we do do some things very well. I am pleased to hear the growth of black gospel harmonies in our worship. I am thrilled to lift my hands (though I do so sparingly) in immediate “throne room” worship, and I am pleased to sing with those that understand your brain and soul comes with a body that digs rhythm. The fellowship I attend is served by several worship teams who bring an astonishing level of skill and passion to corporate worship. But there is part of my particular soul that feels undernourished, and is given to real sorrow as I hear how little of that which ministered grace and strength to the saints of yesterday is preserved for saints today. (I think in fact, we might be a little more saintly if we fed on some of our fore father-and-mother’s food.

Given the hunger, I want to look at just a few of the musical offerings I have turned to, sometimes to fill a void, and sometimes just for the pure pleasure of hearing music that ministers to my intellect and emotions on multiple levels. The Book of Revelation records that people from every nation, tongue and tribe will be gather before "the Lamb, the great I-AM to sing a “new song.” But after some of the new ones, I sure want to sing a few of the standards.

To see reviews in this series click SAVE THE HYMNS

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Jill Phillips: Kingdom Come

Jill Phillips: Kingdom Come
Fervent Records (2005)

Ten Hymns (Eight traditional, two original), presented in a stripped down folksy way -- using pretty much piano, guitar (Bozouki or mandolin), understated percussion, and bass. I found this album in the bargain bin. I liked the price, but it didn’t belong there.

Kingdom Come is refreshing for its apparent simplicity. I know even simplicity is often illusion, but the creators really are to be commended for what isn’t there. Husband Andy Gullahorn is responsible for the production and melodic finger-style guitar   --  which, in combination  with Matt Stanfield's delicate piano -- and Jill's mostly "quietish" voice -- define the overall sound. Jill is joined by a handful of sometimes prominent Nashvillites (?) on background vocals. I recognized the names of Christine Dente (Out of the Grey) and Derek Webb (a Christian folkster);  Even so, you have to listen closley for her parterns in duet.

Kingdom Come has accomplished something rare. While the overall instrumentation and vocal treatments are more akin to the coffee house than the cathedral, Kingdom Come isn’t casual. Think folk-classical. It maintains a reverence, even a sobriety that belongs to the heart of an earlier generation. Several of the hymns are delivered with alternate tunes, or tunings, but there is a never sense that the hymns have been hijacked or run through a ‘mak’em-modern' filter. I fully believe Jill when she sings these songs, and want to join her in the reverence.  My favorite: an alternate tune rendition of Fairest Lord Jesus, delivered with spare counterpoint piano in a minor key.

Jill’s voice is beautiful in a normal – slightly northern kind of way. (This is a Nashville Product, but you could have said Canada, and I would embrace it.) Jill doesn’t sound like a “performer” or somebody doing “arty stuff” with her voice. She sings understated and direct. (At times she does sound just a little like pop singer Cheryl Crow, or fellow gospel singer Carolyn Arends, though again, without much fanfare.

All of which make for a product I fully recommend. This CD feeds my inner man.

(Only complaint, the linear notes do not note the names of the hymnists (or publication dates) and only reference "Public Domain".   Thats the kind of stuff a hymn lover wants to know.)

I have recently added Jill as a Facebook friend (find her fan page here) and was amused by some other FB friend who quipped: “I see you (Jill) are on tour… I didn’t even know you sang!” Now I don’t know if that is because Jill’s friend is from years back, or if Jill fills her day hours with lots of other things. Kingdom Come, however, is Jill’s second (or third?) album out of five or six?. (Though you can't really see it in her lone hymns album, she is a first class lyricist.)  I own  “Writing on the Wall” and hope to acquire her most recent two soon.

Final Note: Jill and husaband appear to be part of  a circle of friends and literary types who not only support each other in music and other creative dallies, but read books and write about them.  I plan on visiting the Rabbit Room on a routine basis.



Monday, October 5, 2009

Jadon Lavik - Roots Run Deep; A collection of Hymns

(a Collection of Hymns) Bec Recordings, 2008
Style: melodic pop/James Taylor acoustic.

I discovered this CD playing audio roulette at Walmart (I liked the cover and price.) Turns out Jadon is a worship leader with a liquid voice and two albums under his belt. His third album Roots Run Deep features up-tempo renditions of classic hymns with mostly standard tunes, dressed in melodic acousta-pop production.

Roots features time honored "chart toppers": Come Though Fount, Blessed Assurance, Tis so Sweet, This is my Father's World, I Surrender All, Wondrous Love, Turn Your Eyes, I Need Thee, Take my Life, What a Friend, and Amazing Grace.

"It's definitely a departure from the first two records" he says. "I hope people dig it. It's not super polished or overly produced, but it's really raw, acoustic and real." Lavik says he's always wanted to do a hymns project, especially since he grew up in a traditional church in the state of Washington where he developed a love and appreciation for the standards of the faith. "I love old hymns," the 29-year-old troubadour confesses. "For me, this is not about making a strategic career move. I wanted to do it because I have a deep reverence for the songs."

As is, Jadon and I have a very different sense of what "raw" or un-polished means. Roots Run Deep features dynamic acoustic work and Jadon's beautiful vocal treatments, but this ain't no Americana. Think instead, of well executed Christian-radio fare, with a strong acoustic base. The production is first rate and deeply layered, and meant to buttress but not overpower the songs.

All in all, Roots runs a tad glossy to my ear, but certainly turns a cold room warm... It enlivens (sp?) my spirit as it introduces young people (or modern worshipers) to our rich hymn heritage. Surprisingly, my three favorite presentations take the greatest liberties with the standard tunes. Download recommendations: The very danceable, What Wondrous Love is This (A+) and Take my Life, along with a soft bluesy rendition of Amazing Grace, with alternate chorus.

Thanks Jadon!